Join Date: May 20, 2007
Location: In A Yellow Submarine
Dylan's William Zantzinger
Dylan's "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" and a Lingering Mystery About William Zantzinger
The death of a certain William Devereux Zantzinger was announced January 3rd on a Maryland website, thebaynet.com. The New York Times and the Washington Post ran obituaries on January 10th.
What news outlets wrote about this passing -- or rather pointedly didn't write -- is intriguing.
Zantzinger (with the "t" removed from his name) is the antagonist in the famous folk song about a hotel worker in Baltimore, Hattie Carroll. She died mere hours after his drunken, unprovoked assault at a charity ball. He was charged with murder, later reduced to manslaughter, and sentenced to six months on August 28th, 1963, the same day as Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech at the March On Washington, 34 miles from the crime scene.
The youthful Bob Dylan, who coincidentally performed at that historic D.C. event, would later tell the tale of these two people.
Zantzinger was a privileged, 24 year old southern Maryland good 'ol boy, an heir to a 600 acre tobacco farm who had "high office relations in the politics of Maryland." Carroll was 51, "a maid in the kitchen" and mother of 11 who "got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane, that sailed through the air and came down through the room, doomed and determined to destroy all her gentle, and she never done nothin' to William Zanzinger." It's a hell of a song, artistic license included.
"Billy," as he was known, gained public infamy anew thirty years later, in the 1990's, when he was convicted of collecting rent from poor black folks on properties he hadn't owned for years. He'd lost the homes, rural shacks without indoor plumbing, because of failure to pay taxes. Continuing to pocket the money, he sued some tenants when they didn't pay and evicted others. He even raised the rents!
Again, this was long after he'd ceased to be the landlord, and nobody knew it, including the courts into which he dragged these unfortunate souls. This incredulous scam netted tens of thousands of dollars before he was caught.
A real piece of work, this guy. Still, my curiosity meter is pinging louder now that he's gone.
His obits tell us nothing about survivors, although one news account from '63 said he was married with two small boys at the time of the Hattie Carroll incident.
Oddly, this information was purposely withheld in the wake of his death. From the NY Times: "His death was confirmed by an employee of the Brinsfield-Echols Funeral Home, who said Mr. Zantzinger's family had prohibited the release of more details." The Post version had something similar, and neither paper fished for anything, apparently.
In fact, even details about when and where the service was held remained unavailable to the locals. The southern Maryland newspaper that first reported his death cryptically noted that one must call the mortuary for funeral arrangements. OK, that's weird.
Despite a desire to keep the press at bay, it's one thing to insist on privacy, something else entirely to withhold commonly accepted information. Why the secrecy, and why the media complicity surrounding a newsworthy death?
Granted, Billy was an embarrassment in life, young and old, and it began when an upstart songwriter made us all feel for Hattie. Her life and death wouldn't have otherwise been universally honored beyond a buried account in a few East Coast newspapers.
And yes, everyone understands that family shame carries weight, often wrongly. The sins of the father shouldn't be unfairly visited upon the sons, not to mention daughters-in-law or grandchildren.
Yet that's precisely why there's no earthly reason for survivors to go nameless, assuming they don't have something to protect, or hide. After all, Billy's misdeeds aren't their fault.
An extensive profile of Zantzinger ran in the Washington Post in 1991, and he later gave an interview for a 2001 Dylan biography. It turns out he's well known in his neck of the woods, just a half hour from the nation's capital. He didn't lead a sheltered, hermit-like existence, and the Zantzinger family name is well known in southern Maryland.
His late brother Richard Crew Zantzinger, Jr. spent 14 months circumnavigating the globe on a sailboat, for God's sake, and wrote a colorful book about it. Billy's own eight year old son joined a leg of the sojourn at Johannesburg, South Africa.
This clan hasn't exactly been stricken away in a dungeon. They're not wallflowers.
The power of Dylan's long ago lyric lies in its juxtaposition of wealth and poverty, between a juvenile post-collegiate dilettante in tails who twirled a cane "around his diamond ring finger" and a woman who "never sat once at the head of the table." For this reason the tragedy had resonance at the height of the civil rights movement. It's also why the death of Carroll's tormentor is a worthy story in 2009. The Dickensian theme at the heart of the saga endures.
Then there's the matter of reporting fundamental facts of interest to a general readership. When Charles Harrelson died in prison a couple of years ago, serving life for murdering a federal judge, it wasn't hidden that one of his surviving sons was the actor Woody Harrelson. Sure, we already knew the connection from Woody himself, but news accounts wouldn't have left it out, regardless.
If Zantzinger's immediate survivors hold social or economic status (and a cursory Google search suggests both), it's legitimate to tell us. Not in a National Enquirer exposť sort of way; rather, as part of the record.
For instance, William "Willie" Devereux Zantzinger, Jr. retired last year after almost two decades in the investment business. He'd become Partner and Director of Trading at the successful asset management firm Gardner Lewis. Why did the Times fail to mention him as a surviving son in their reporting on his father's death?
There are probably other examples of prominence, or "high office relations" as the Bard put it.
Families can say what they want (or not) in "paid" obits. That's their personal choice. Death notices generated by respected news departments have a journalistic standard to meet, and that's different.
News is news, and some may disagree, but I think the media should have dug deeper on this one, instead of accepting -- out of hand -- the information roadblock that was erected. Color me curious.
I get by with a little help from my friends.